A striking paradox is at the core of director-choreographer Warren Carlyle’s simply wonderful concert revival of Finian’s Rainbow, which concludes this season’s City Center Encores! series and is Broadway-ready. On one hand, the musical — which deals with racial intolerance in a mythical Missitucky sharecropper’s valley — seems unusually dated now that the Barack Obama era rules. On the other hand, the show feels so up-to-the-minute prescient that lines of dialogue about questionable banking practices and misguided credit policies have the audience breaking into spontaneous applause.
The cork was popped on the delightful E. Y. Harburg-Fred Saidy-Burton Lane work at the end of the 1940s when fairy-tale works were a reflection of the country’s post-World War II optimism, but underpinned by increasing concerns about denied civil rights. So the impish creators dreamed up the story of Sharon McLonergan (Kate Baldwin) and dad Finian (Jim Norton), who leave Ireland to find gold in the hills surrounding Fort Knox.
However, once they arrive stateside, the pair not only encounter trouble in neighboring Rainbow Valley, but are pursued by leprechaun Og (Jeremy Bobb), from whom Finian “borrowed” a three-wishes-conferring pot of home-grown gold. The upside of their journey is that Sharon instantly falls in love with strapping community morale-booster Woody (Cheyenne Jackson), while Og — who is gradually turning human over the loss of his cherished pot — finds love wherever he looks and eventually with Susan the Silent (Alina Faye).
There’s no doubt that the show’s creators had social reform on their politicized minds — especially in the subplot about bigoted Senator Billboard Rawkins (Philip Bosco), who only changes his ways after turning black (a feat accomplished here by the casting of Ruben Santiago-Hudson). But they also knew how to make their case in one clever and romantic song after another such as “Look to the Rainbow,” “Old Devil Moon,” “Something Sort of Grandish,” “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” “If This Isn’t Love,” “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” and especially “The Begat” (irresistibly presented by Hudson, Bernard Dotson, Joe Aaron Reid, and Devin Richards).
Abetted by conductor Rob Berman, Carlyle has seen to it that the brash Baldwin, grinning Jackson, bobbing Bobb, the lusciously twirling Faye, and the delectable Terri White (who leads “Necessity”) all deliver every golden measure to its utmost. For this polished treatment — which wouldn’t look out of place transferred to Broadway — set designer John Lee Beatty has asked lighting designer Ken Billington to hang many of his lights on a rainbow rigging. It’s just one more bright idea in a production chock-full of them!